Our tyrants always feel in need of excuses (William H. Gass)

Our tyrants always feel in need of excuses. Our enemies are always spying, undermining, arming, plotting, seizing the high ground, inventing new horrors, inventing flashier weapons. This mole, or that rat, is smarter than we ever”“imagined, and it is working day and night against us—cunning and conniving—out of sight, in secret—because beneath deep undergarments it holds a gun, a knife, a bomb, or a book full of dreadful ideas. We must monitor our phones, watch our neighbors—note, film, record, trace, follow, measure every movement, scrutinize every public meeting, overhear every private one, rifle records, ponder every purchase, search through garbage, twist dumb tongues till they scream with the pain of prying pliers.

Tyrannies do not come in ones or twos; tyrannies come in battalions: there is Mother’s heart you mustn’t break or Father’s hopes you dare not dash; there are the reprisals taken by society because you sniffed when you should have sneezed; there are all those looks delivered like blows from someone sitting on his high horse and wielding his scorn like a whip. It does not matter what the party motto is, what flag flies, what history pretends to teach, what rewards will be yours, what hurt feelings will follow; we need to be free to choose our own errors, our own myths, to furnish our souls as we see fit.

Of course, what we believe is important, but that we believe it freely, that we can speak of it openly, that we fear neither disapproval nor contradiction, is essential to the humanness of our being. This freedom—if it is to be freedom and not another fraud—comes at a cost. It is a cost that those who have rarely been free are often reluctant to pay, because they are as unused to the presence of liberty in others as they are of freedom when granted to themselves.

We can be real only when others are allowed to play their radios. It’s odd, but our liberty lies in the liberty of our neighbors. They will be rude; they will cross the street against the light; they will eat offal; they will entertain tyrants at tea; they will be tasteless; they will be other; they will be … That’s it … they will be. They will speak strangely, dress oddly, live quaintly, worship a deity they found in a dime store. Worse: they won’t like Bach or Henry James. Worse: they will live like gnats in annoying clouds. Worse: for us they will have no particular esteem. Worst: they will want us to be nice to them, share our rights, give them room. Worse than worst: they will deny us our desires if they can; they will blame us for their plights; they will give evidence, everywhere, of the same mean-spirited insecurities that have soiled our souls from our birth.

When we deny to others their interior life, we deny ourselves all knowledge of it.

From William H. Gass’s essay “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially in Times Like These.” Collected in Life Sentences.


An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb

Daniel Green’s The Reading Experience was one of the first sites I started reading regularly when I first started blogging about literature on Biblioklept. If you regularly read literary criticism online, it’s likely you’ve read some of Green’s reviews in publications like The Kenyon Review3:AMFull StopThe Los Angeles Review of BooksFull Stop, and more.

Green’s got a new collection out from Cow Eye Press, Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism, which presents his philosophy of literary criticism, drawing on writing he has done over the past dozen years on The Reading Experience, as well as essays he has published elsewhere. Beyond the Blurb lucidly explicates an approach to criticism that stresses careful attention to literary form and language. “The experience of reading is the experience of language” might be a tidy blurb for Beyond the Blurb.

In his own words, Green was trained as an academic literary critic, but has long since seen the error of his ways. He lives in central Missouri. Over a series of emails, Green was kind enough to talk to me about his new book Beyond the Blurb, literary criticism, experimental fiction, William H. Gass, the New Critics, James Wood, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Bob Dylan’s winning the Nobel, and lots more.


Biblioklept: In the introduction to Beyond the Blurb, you outline some of the core tenets of your philosophy of literary criticism. One of these is, “The meaning of a literary work consists of the experience of reading it, not in abstracted ‘themes’ that signify what the work is ‘about.'” Another tenet is that, “The experience of reading is the experience of language.”

This idea of a reader’s experience of reading appears throughout Beyond the Blurb, and indeed, your website is named The Reading Experience. Is it possible to define, or at least describe, what you mean by the reader’s experience of reading, in a general sense? 

Daniel Green: The Reading Experience is a direct allusion to John Dewey’s Art as Experience. My insistence that reading is experience of language is an attempt to apply Dewey’s concept of “experience” to reading works of literature. I probably put more emphasis on language per se than Dewey did, which is likely the residual influence of New Criticism. I was a graduate student at a time when many older literary scholars—including some of those with whom I studied—were still New Critics, or at least assigned New Critics in classes I took. (Or maybe I just read a lot of New Criticism on my own).

I still think the New Critics’ general approach, which emphasized the “ambiguity” inherent to a literary work, is sound, although they went too far in using words like “icon” and “heresy,” almost making works of literature into sacred objects. I discovered Dewey’s book and was converted to the notion that works of art are objects of experience whereby the reader/beholder is given the opportunity simply to appreciate experience for its own sake. (Dewey thought works of art gave us the greatest opportunity for this).

The experience of reading is always the experience of language, even though many readers don’t stop often enough to acknowledge this. We read artfully arranged words that in works of literature create “meaning” only relative to their arrangement, which is not the arrangement to be found in newspaper columns or political speeches. A critic should be sensitive to the particular kind of arrangement—which includes the arrangement into “form”—found in a particular work. Even leaping ahead to “story” or “setting” distorts our actual experience of the work unless we also notice the way the writer has used language to create the illusion of story and the illusion of setting.

Biblioklept: Is there a risk though at falling into “the experience of the experience” when reading literature? Many people like to “get lost” in the illusion that the language of literature replicates reality. James Wood, in particular, seems to particularly value reality or life in the literature he esteems.

DG: People are perfectly free to read in any way they want, including for the illusion of reality. But I see that as a secondary effect. Has the work succeeded aesthetically in creating that illusion? It seems to me that critics ought to be those readers who are most sensitive to the “experience of the experience.” This ought to be the first goal of the critic, to describe that experience. Jumping right to “life on the page” is jumping right over the art of literary art.

Frankly, I’ve always found the notion that literature (fiction) is valuable to the extent it provides access to “reality” or “human life” bizarre. Since we’re humans writing about human experience, what other than reality could we possibly find in a literary work? Doing creative things with words isn’t separate from human life. It’s part of human life.

Biblioklept: It seems that there’s a demand that contemporary fiction be “useful” now—that literature is supposed to foster empathy or make us better human beings (or even make us live longer). 

Daniel Green
Daniel Green

DG: Yeah, there are a lot of claims that the primary value of fiction lies in its ability to allow readers to “share” other people’s experience and perspective, to see the world from their point of view. On the one hand this seems to me a fairly innocuous notion. If a novel effectively conveys the illusion that you’re inhabiting another subjectivity and you think the experience has been salutary in your sense of “empathy,” then so be it. It is, however, an illusion, so on the other hand in no way are you really sharing another perspective or point of view, since what’re you are in fact experiencing is an effect of the writer’s skillful disposition of language. There are no “people” in fiction, just words and sentences, and therefore when you talk about empathizing or adopting another perspective, at best you are speaking metaphorically—it’s like empathizing with a real person, even though it’s not.

I would also say that the notion you’re sharing the author’s perspective, or engaging with the author’s “mind,” is misbegotten as well. A work of fiction (at least a good one) doesn’t have a perspective, or it would be a work of nonfiction.

I actually do think reading literature can make you a better human being, by helping you to be a better reader, or by expanding your ability to have a rich aesthetic experience. The idea it can make you ethically or morally better (presumably by teaching you a lesson) is one I assumed had been discarded long ago.

Biblioklept: I think a lot of folks still believe in “moral fiction” of some kind though (Mark Edmundson’s attack on contemporary poets in Harper’s a few years ago comes immediately to mind). Your response recalls to me some favorite lines from William Gass’s “The Medium of Fiction.” “It seems a country-headed thing to say,” he writes, “that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes cloth or metal tubes.” Gass is one of the examples you include in your chapter on “Critical Successes.” What do you admire in his criticism and his critical approach?

DG: I think of Gass as a “poet-critic,” even though he is of course a fiction writer. Indeed, I can think of few critics who make better use of the poetic resources of language in writing a criticism that is also pungent and deeply informed. He is among critics the most sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature and best able to express his aesthetic engagement in his own aesthetically rich prose. He’s a critic who registers an “appreciation” of literature more than he attempts to explicate through analysis, but there is room for both kinds of critics.

Biblioklept: Harold Bloom also strikes me as a critic “sensitive to the aesthetic character of literature,” and he also lands in your examples of “Critical Successes.” Bloom’s had a long history of pissing off various critics and even casual readers. What do you make of his agon with the so-called “School of Resentment”?

DG: I think he probably overdid the rhetoric with the “school of resentment” thing, although his underlying insight, that academic criticism had abandoned the study of literature for its own sake—to illuminate what is valuable about it—in favor of other agendas for which literature is merely a convenient tool of analysis, was certainly correct. I don’t object to forms of criticism or scholarship that favor cultural or political analysis over literary analysis, but these approaches came not to supplement or coexist with literary analysis; instead they completely replaced it. Bloom expressed his love of literature through becoming a learned professor and scholar. Now the idea that a literature professor is someone who loves literature seems quaint, if not outlandish. (Which is no doubt why Bloom seems an outlandish figure to many people).

Biblioklept: Sontag is another figure in your chapter on “Critical Successes”; indeed, you cite her at some length. Sontag wanted us to “learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.” What are some practical methods for critics (and readers in general) to attend more to the “sensuous surface”?

DG: With literature, that has to mean attention to the palpable features of the writer’s shaping of language. A work of fiction is not a script for the reader to imagine into his/her own movie version. The “sensuous surface” is the sound and movement of the language. Gary Lutz is a good example of a writer who understands this. Lutz’s stories deliberately frustrate attempts to read for the plot or to visualize the characters, instead requiring attention to the transformed effects of word choice and syntax. Lutz may be an extreme example, but critics should approach all works of literature in the way his fiction demands. The notion that poetry should be read this way is not such an outlandish one, and criticism of fiction has moved too far away from criticism of poetry. Both fiction and poetry should be read first of all as aesthetic arrangements of language, although I don’t say that all criticism should necessarily stop there.

 Biblioklept: What are some of the directions that criticism might go after appraising the aesthetic arrangements of language?

DG: As I say, I don’t object to criticism that examines works of literature for political or historical contexts and implications, but this should be done with the proviso that works of literature (most works of literature) are offered first of all as works of art. Examining a literary work for the aesthetic arrangements of language is the way of establishing that, because its language has been aesthetically arranged, it can’t coherently be subsumed to a political position or reduced to a cultural symptom. I’m speaking here of fiction and poetry (also drama, to the extent it belongs to literature). Including works of “creative nonfiction” as literature arguably muddies the waters some, but even here the “creative” part must count for something, must mean something other than simply “nice prose.” It ought to involve ways of making “meaning” more complex, more suggestive, not more transparent.

Older, more “canonical” works can certainly serve as the focus of lots of different critical inquiries, since in most cases their specifically literary qualities can be assumed as established, but I’d want them to be taught as first of all works of literary art. Presenting them to students immediately as politics or objects of theoretical discourse seems to me to simply erase “literature” as something about which it makes sense to speak as a separate category of writing.

Biblioklept: You include “Academic Criticism” in your section of “Critical Failures.” The focus in the chapter on “Academic Criticism” is on Joseph M. Conte’s study of American postmodern literature, Design and Debris, and not necessarily academic criticism in general. In general though, do you think American universities and schools are neglecting the aesthetics of literature in favor of different “theoretical” approaches?

DG: Yes, of course they are. I don’t think many academic critics would deny it. Certainly most of the academic journals that determine which approaches are informally—if not “officially”—sanctioned and which are disdained are now completely devoted to non-aesthetic approaches. Lately a quasi-formalist strategy called “surface reading” has become more respectable, but even it is offered as a corrective to certain kinds of theoretical overreach and doesn’t finally threaten the hegemony of theory itself as the primary concern of academic criticism. What’s called “digital humanities”—data-mining using literary texts as data—shares with theory the assumption that assessing works of literature for their aesthetic qualities was long ago deemed insufficiently “rigorous” as a way of organizing the study of literature—although for some reason, unclear to me even now, the term “literature” has been retained to identify the nominal object of study, and what these critics do is still referred to as “literary study.”

There are, of course, professors who do continue to present literary works as works of art. They are surely in the minority, however, particularly in the more prestigious universities.

Biblioklept: Another entry in your section on “Critical Failures” is James Wood, whom you devote quite a few pages to. I often find myself very frustrated with Wood’s approach to literary criticism, but he’s also a very perceptive reader.

DG: Yes, he can be a very insightful reader. I think in the essay I say that he is, on the one hand, one of the few practicing critics who is able to focus very closely on the text under consideration and offer a sensitive “reading.” But, on the other hand, he uses that sensitivity to advance a very narrowly conceived agenda. It seems to me he isn’t reading the work to understand what the author is doing, whatever that might be, but to find support for his bias toward psychologically complex realism. It causes him to unfairly characterize fiction for which he does not have affinity (“hysterical realism”), when he’s not merely ignoring work that contradicts his agenda. I actually learn from his reviews of some writers, especially certain translated authors whose work clearly does conform to his preconceptions of “how fiction works.” But he seems to know very little about American literature, and his critical agenda especially distorts the formal and aesthetic assumptions of many American writers, particularly those in the tradition of nonrealist writing going back to Poe and Hawthorne. Since the kind of experimental writing I admire to a significant extent has its source in that tradition, naturally I find his approach objectionable.

Biblioklept: Wood often violates the first of John Updike’s “rules” of reviewing books (from Picked-Up Pieces): “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” 

DG: Yes, that’s exactly right. You can then either judge the author a failure by the standards he/she has adopted, or you can rule what the author has attempted out of court—that’s not the sort of thing a novelist should be doing. It would be hard to justify the latter position, although you could mount a sustained critique of the author’s chosen mode. Perhaps its conventions are stale or its strategies are incoherent. Mostly Wood doesn’t do this. He instead continues to judge by the standards of his preferred mode—it’s realism all right, but it’s “hysterical.” Continue reading “An interview with literary critic Daniel Green about his new book, Beyond the Blurb”

William Gass and William Gaddis at “The Writer and Religion” conference, 1994 (Audio)

I have personally always preferred prepositions (William H. Gass)

Philosophers can often be classified in terms of their favorite parts of speech: there are those who believe that nouns designate the only reliable aspects of being; others, of a contrary view, who see those nouns as simply unkempt nests of qualities; and all are familiar with the Heraclitean people who embrace verbs as if you could make love to water while entirely on land. I have personally always preferred prepositions, particularly of, and especially, among its many meanings, those of possession and being possessed, of belonging and exclusion.

From William H Gass’s essay “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence.” Collected in  Life Sentences.

A reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence (William H. Gass)

Stendhal’s The Red and the Black

Boston, 1943. I am about to go down to the submarine base to test out for the school there. I have come into possession of the Liveright Black and Gold edition. (What a wonderful series. I loved them all. There was Jules Romain’s The Body’s Rapture, a kooky, overwrought book, I know now, but it was sex, and it was French. There was Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, more sex, more French. There was Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage, more sex, more French. There was Stendhal’s own On Love, ditto. There was The Collected Works of Pierre Loüys, double dots, double ditto. There was Alexandre Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, which was simply French, a disappointment. And The Red and the Black, like checker squares.) Anyway, I am lining up New London in my train table’s sights, and scanning the novel I have bought because of the series it is in, thinking that I’m not going to like climbing a rope through all that water, and thinking that the first chapter, a description of a small town, is commonplace, ho-hum, and will I be put in a pressure chamber at sub school like a canned tomato? When suddenly, I am suckered into Stendhal, and no longer read words (against all the rules of right reading I will later give myself), but barrel along like my own train, a runaway, holding my breath oftener and oftener, aware only of a insistently increasing tension, and it is not because I am underwater; it is because I am inside the magic of this narrative master. The Charterhouse of Parma would do exactly the same thing to me, except that I didn’t let a sub school come between us, but covered its lengthy length as nearly in one sitting as might be managed, snacking at the edge of it as though it were on a TV tray. That sort of gluttonous read is rare, and never happens to me now, when I read, because I read to write or teach or otherwise to talk, and not because I am a reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence.

From William H. Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” part of A Temple of Texts (2006). The essay in question is not so much an essay as it is/was a catalog to “inaugurate the International Writers Center” at Washington University.

The last sentence is what matters most to me; when I read it I nodded, or maybe didn’t nod, maybe just acquiesced in some other way, physically.

Who wouldn’t love to read like that again?

(Maybe persons young enough to not know that they are in fact reading like madpersons, seduced, etc.).

I tip my glass for gluttonous reads.

I would love to be a reading madman again, and not one who reads to write or read or otherwise talk.


“First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville” | On Audiobooks of “Difficult” Novels

Moby-Dick, Rockwell Kent
I am a huge fan of audiobooks. I’ve pretty much always got one going—for commutes, jogs, workaday chores, etc. The usual. I love to listen to audiobooks of books I’ve already read, in particular, but I of course listen to new stuff too, or stuff that’s new to me, anyway. There just isn’t time to get to all the reading and rereading I want to do otherwise.

Beyond the fact that audiobooks allow me to experience more books than I would be able to otherwise, I like the medium itself: I like a reader reading me a story. Like a lot of people, some of my earliest, best memories are of someone reading to me. (The narrative in my family was always that my mother fell asleep while reading me The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and that I picked it up and finished it on my own and that’s how I “learned” to read—I’m not really sure of this tale’s veracity, which makes it a good story, of course). So I’ve never fully understood folks who sniff their noses at audiobooks as less than real reading. 

Indeed, the best literature is best read aloud. It is for the ear, as William H. Gass puts it in his marvelous essay “The Sentence Seeks Its Form”:

Breath (pneuma) has always been seen as a sign of life . . . Language is speech before it is anything. It is born of babble and shaped by imitating other sounds. It therefore must be listened to while it is being written. So the next time someone asks you that stupid question, “Who is your audience?” or “Whom do you write for?” you can answer, “The ear.” I don’t just read Henry James; I hear him. . . . The writer must be a musician—accordingly. Look at what you’ve written, but later … at your leisure. First—listen. Listen to Joyce, to Woolf, to Faulkner, to Melville.

Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, Melville—a difficult foursome, no? I would argue that the finest audiobooks—those with the most perceptive performers (often guided by a great director and/or producer) can guide an auditor’s ear from sound to sense to spirit. A great audiobook can channel the pneuma of a complex and so-called difficult novel by animating it, channeling its life force. The very best audiobooks can teach their auditors how to read the novels—how to hear and feel their spirit.

I shall follow (with one slight deviation, substituting one William for another) Gass’s foursome by way of example. Joyce initiates his list, so:

I had read Joyce’s Ulysses twice before I first experience RTÉ’s 1982 dramatized, soundtracked, sound-effected, full cast recording of the novel (download it via that link). I wrote about the Irish broadcast company’s production at length when I first heard it, but briefly: This is a full cast of voices bringing the bustle and energy (and torpor and solemnity and ecstasy and etc.) of Bloomsday to vivid vivacious vivifying life. It’s not just that RTÉ’s cast captures the tone of Ulysses—all its brains and hearts, its howls and its harrumphs—it’s also that this production masterfully expresses the pace and the rhythm of Ulysses. Readers (unnecessarily) daunted by Ulysses’s reputation should consider reading the book in tandem with RTÉ’s production.

Woolf is next on Gass’s list. Orlando is my favorite book of hers, although I have been told by scholars and others that it is not as serious or important as To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway. It is probably not as “difficult” either; nevertheless, put it on the list! Clare Higgins’s reading of Orlando remains one of my favorite audiobooks of all times: arch without being glib, Higgins animates the novel with a picaresque force that subtly highlights the novel’s wonderful absurdities.

Faulkner…well, did you recall that I admitted I would not keep complete faith to Gass’s short list? Certainly Faulkner’s long twisted sentences evoke their own mossy music, but alas, I’ve yet to find an audiobook with a reader whose take on Faulkner I could tolerate. I tried Grover Gardner’s take on Absalom, Absalom! but alas!—our reader often took pains to untangle what was properly tangled. I don’t know. I was similarly disappointed in an audiobook of The Sound and the Fury (I don’t recall the reader). And yet I’m sure Faulkner could be translated into a marvelous audiobook (Apprise me, apprise me!).

Let me substitute another difficult William: Gaddis. I don’t know if I could’ve cracked J R if I hadn’t first read it in tandem with Nick Sullivan’s audiobook. J R is a tragicomic opera of voices—unattributed voices!—and it would be easy to quickly lose heart without signposts to guide you. Sullivan’s reading is frankly amazing, a baroque, wild, hilarious, and ultimately quite moving performance of what may be the most important American novel of the late twentieth century. A recent reread of J R was almost breezy; Sullivan had taught me how to read it.

Mighty Melville caps Gass’s list. I had read Moby-Dick a number of times, studying it under at least two excellent teachers, before I first heard William Hootkins read it. (Hootkins, a character actor, is probably most well-known as the X-wing pilot Porkins in A New Hope). As a younger reader, I struggled with Moby-Dick, even as it intrigued me. I did not, however, understand just how funny it was, and even though I intuited its humor later in life, I didn’t fully experience it until Hootkins’ reading. Hootkins inhabits Ishmael with a dynamic, goodwilled aplomb, but where his reading really excels is in handling the novel’s narrative macroscopic shifts, as Ishmael’s ego seems to fold into the crew/chorus, and dark Ahab takes over at times. But not just Ahab—Hootkins embodies Starbuck, Flask, and Stubb with humor and pathos. Hootkins breaths spirit into Melville’s music. I cannot overstate how much I recommend Hootkins audiobook, particularly for readers new to Moby-Dick. And readers old to Moby-Dick too.

“What can we do to find out how writing is written? Why, we listen to writers who have written well,” advises (or scolds, if you like) William Gass. The best audiobook performances of difficult books don’t merely provide shortcuts to understanding those books—rather, they teach auditors how to hear them, how to feel them, how to read them.

Dictionaries (William H. Gass)

Dictionaries are supposed to influence usage. Usage is what dictionaries record. “This is what we have meant,” they say; “continue in the same vein so that communication will be accurate, reliable, and fluent.” Then the next dictionary will record that fidelity, and issue the same command, which will complete the cycle. Among users, however, there are many who are incompetent, inventive, or disobedient. The French Academy tries to drive strays back into the herd. English has no comparable guardian and its speakers lack every discipline. Soon meanings have multiplied or slid or mushed, and niceties—delicate distinctions—lost along the way. In this haphazard fashion, influence has come to mean a kind of causality that operates only through the agency of a consciousness. Where this puts the stars, I’m not sure. Because of smog or city glare, we often don’t even know the stars are there.

From: William H. Gass’s essay “Influence.” Collected in A Temple of Texts.

The con man succeeds (William H. Gass)

An intelligence without integrity (a condition so often found in people of public life) is likely to succumb to the blandishments of ideology; otherwise, the mind’s inherent skepticism will guarantee its safety from superstition and other forms of sugary conjecture. Socrates knew nothing really awful could happen to him if he kept his mind free of unwarranted opinions. True strength, throughout its spectrum, shows itself through unflustered gentleness and forbearance, since only such strength has nothing to fear. The con man succeeds by exploiting the greed of his marks and is often reluctantly admired because wit is on his side, as well as discipline. His cynicism is just good sense and his nose for moral weakness is like the dowser’s wand for water. Similarly, when ill-formed or palpably false ideas make their way through the multitude, it is because the comforts they bring are so ardently desired.If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay too late and drink all the whiskey.

Plato treated poetic inspiration as a case of such irrational infection: The gods bypass sober skill to make the pen prophetic so that the resulting poem, recited by a rhapsode similarly tranced, becomes an incitement to the mob. Or an unconscious wish, sneaky as an odor, enters the author’s awareness disguised as its opposite, and arranges the stage for a coup d’éclat. Thus the magnetic coil is closed: muse to poet, poet to page, page to performer, and performer to audience, whose applause pleases the muse, encourages the poet, and grants his forbidden desire: to rule.

From William H. Gass’s essay influence. Collected in A Temple of Texts.

People have always distrusted the classics (William H. Gass)

Oddly enough, people have always distrusted the classics, but it is now publicly acceptable to take pride in such distrust. We all dislike intimidation, so we worry about being overwhelmed by these tomes above which halos hover as over the graves of the recently sainted, because we wrongly believe they are fields full of esoteric knowledge worse than nettles, of specialized jargon, seductive rhetoric, and swarms of stinging data, and that the purpose of all this unpleasantness is to show us up, put us in our place, make fun of our lack of understanding; but the good books are notable for their paucity of information—a classic is as careful about what it picks up as about what it puts down; it introduces new concepts because fresh ideas are needed; and only if the most ordinary things are exotic is it guilty of a preoccupation with the out-of-the-way, since the ordinary, the everyday, is their most concentrated concern: What could be more familiar than a child rolling for fun down a grassy slope—that is, when seen by Galileo, a body descending an inclined plane? What could be more commonplace than Bertrand Russell’s penny, lying naked on an examining table, awaiting the epistemologist’s report on the problems of its perception? What could be less distinguished a subject for Maynard Keynes’s ruminations on the source of its value than such a modest coin? Why should the question—What good is that?—alarm us, or why, in an age when most of the world worships money but calls its chosen God Father instead of Chairman, Lord instead of Coach, Most High instead of Star, should we shy from the same questions Plato asked, and not ask them about our business, about our love affairs, about our lip-served gods, about democracy?

From William H. Gass’s “To A Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics”; collected in A Temple of Texts (Knopf, 2006). For fun, pretend you are the young friend in the title.

There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them (William H. Gass)

There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them; the second is that the people who use them are normally numskulls and prudes; the third is that in general they’re not at all sexy, and the main reason for this is that no one loves them enough. Contrary to those romantic myths which glorify the speech of mountain men and working people, Irish elves and Phoenician sailors, the words which in our language are worst off are the ones which the worst-off use. Poverty and isolation produce impoverished and isolated minds, small vocabularies, a real but fickle passion for slang, most of which is like the stuff which Woolworths sells for ashtrays, words swung at random, wildly, as though one were clubbing rats, or words misused in an honest but hopeless attempt to make do, like attacking tins with toothpicks; there is a dominance of cliché and verbal stereotype, an abundance of expletives and stammer words: you know, man, like wow! neat, fabulous, far-out, sensaysh. I am firmly of the opinion that people who can’t speak have nothing to say. It’s one more thing we do to the poor, the deprived: cut out their tongues . . . allow them a language as lousy as their lives.

Thin in content, few in number, constantly abused: what chance do the unspeakables have? Change is resisted fiercely, additions are denied. I have introduced ‘squeer,’ ‘crott,’ ‘kotswinkling,’ and ‘papdapper,’ with no success. Sometimes obvious substitutes, like ‘socksucker,’ catch on, but not for long. What we need, of course, is a language which will allow us to distinguish the normal or routine fuck from the glorious, the rare, or the lousy one—a fack from a fick, a fick from a fock—but we have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses, and our earthy words are all . . . well . . . ‘dirty.’ It says something dirty about us, no doubt, because in a society which had a mind for the body and other similarly vital things, there would be a word for coming down, or going up, words for nibbles on the bias, earlobe loving, and every variety of tongue track. After all, how many kinds of birds do we distinguish?

We have a name for the Second Coming but none for a second coming. In fact our entire vocabulary for states of consciousness is critically impoverished.

From William H. Gass’s On Being Blue.

The tyrant ties tongues in knots (William H. Gass)

The tyrant ties tongues in knots. Speech is so easy it takes more than snow to slow its course. The tyrant must frighten people from their freedom; beat the soles of their feet till they mince their step in time to his goose-wide stride. Stagger after me; the best is yet to be. The tyrant can make men line up as though they were made of tin or lead to tip over for this week’s war, because pain is a great big persuader, and their lead-headed patriotism is petty and made of hatred; because, after all, though a war may topple their obedient rows, the tyrant can, in any case, melt them down, these tin-lead men, mold them anew, and paint their britches pretty. He can encourage kids to tattle on their folks; he can set friend against friend, family against family; for the fear of punishment and the promise of reward do for men what they do for the donkey. Be fruitful, multiply, the tyrant says benignly. I must have a larger army.

From William H. Gass’s essay “What Freedom of Expression Means, Especially in Times Like These.” Collected in Life Sentences.

The sentence is itself an odyssey | William H. Gass analyzes a sentence from Joyce’s Ulysses

Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom have stopped at a cabman’s shelter, a small coffeehouse under the Loop Line Bridge, for a cuppa and a rest on their way home. And the hope that the coffee will sober Stephen up. After an appropriate period of such hospitality, Bloom sees that it is time to leave.

James Joyce. Ulysses, (1921).

To cut a long story short Bloom, grasping the situation, was the first to rise to his feet so as not to outstay their welcome having first and foremost, being as good as his word that he would foot the bill for the occasion, taken the wise precaution to unobtrusively motion to mine host as a parting shot a scarcely perceptible sign when the others were not looking to the effect that the amount due was forthcoming, making a grand total of fourpence (the amount he deposited unobtrusively in four coppers, literally the last of the Mohicans) he having previously spotted on the printed price list for all who ran to read opposite to him in unmistakable figures, coffee ad., confectionary do, and honestly well worth twice the money once in a way, as Wetherup used to remark.

Commonplaces     Narrative Events

1. to cut a long story short     authorial intervention

2. grasp the situation     subjective interpretation

3. rise to his feet     narrative action

4. don’t outstay your welcome     rationale or justification

5. first and foremost     subjective evaluation

6. good as his word     characterization

7. foot the bill promise, therefore     a prediction

8. take the wise precaution     subjective evaluation

9. mine host     authorial archness

10. parting shot     subjective evaluation

11. scarcely perceptible sign     narrative action

12. to the effect that     subjective interpretation

13. amount due is forthcoming     subjective interpretation

14. grand total     characterization

15. literally the last of the Mohicans     authorial intervention, allusion

16. previously spotted     subjective interpretation

17. all who run can read     authorial intervention, allusion

18. honestly (in this context)     subjective interpretation

19. well worth it     subjective interpretation

20. worth twice the money     subjective interpretation

21. once in a waysubjective     allusion

22. as [Wetherup] used to [remark] say     attribution

The sentence without its commonplaces:

To be brief, Bloom, realizing they should not stay longer, was the first to rise, and having prudently and discreetly signaled to their host that he would pay the bill, quietly left his last four pennies, a sum—most reasonable—he knew was due, having earlier seen the price of their coffee and confection clearly printed on the menu.

Bloom was the first to get up so that he might also be the first to motion (to the host) that the amount due was forthcoming.

The theme of the sentence is manners: Bloom rises so he and his companion will not have sat too long over their coffees and cake, and signals discreetly (unobtrusively is used twice) that he will pay the four pence due according to the menu. The sum, and the measure of his generosity, is a pittance.

The sentence is itself an odyssey, for Bloom and Dedalus are going home. They stop (by my count) at twenty-two commonplaces on their way. Other passages might also be considered for the list, such as “when others were not looking.” Commonplaces are the goose down of good manners. They are remarks empty of content, hence never offensive; they conceal hypocrisy in an acceptable way, because, since they have no meaning in themselves anymore they cannot be deceptive. That is, we know what they mean (“how are you?”), but they do not mean what they say (I really don’t want to know how you are). Yet they soothe and are expected. We have long forgotten that “to foot the bill,” for instance, is to pay the sum at the bottom of it, though it could mean to kick a bird in the face. Bloom, we should hope, is already well above his feet when he rises to them. The principal advantage of the commonplace is that it is supremely self-effacing. It so lacks originality that it has no source. The person who utters a commonplace—to cut a long explanation short—has shifted into neutral.

From William H. Gass’s essay “Narrative Sentences.” Collected in Life Sentences.

There is nothing in the world worth worship (William H. Gass)

Truthful people are a big pain. That is their aim in life: to be a big pain. Because we naturally love lies. Lies are more fun, far pleasanter to hear, for the most part, and certainly more effective. In fact, they are called for. Parents pretend they want to know whether Gertie is screwing in the parlor and whether Peter is smoking pot in the barn. And if the kids tell the truth, as they are beseeched to do, they will be ragged and snagged and grounded unmercifully. So the kids learn. Lying promotes freedom. Lying guards privacy. Lying saves lives and wins elections. It describes things as they ought to be. Of course, we need to be truthful, but only on occasion.Lying is a vice that succeeds, as so many other vices do, only in an environment of truthfulness. Remember the paradox: Cretans are liars, the Cretan swore. And retell to yourself the fable about the boy who cried, “Wolf … wolf …” one too many times. Vices need virtues and vice versa. I am speaking, of course, about the little lies of daily life, not the big lies of priests and politicians, those who want to fix things and those who want things fixed. 

People who publically complain of sin so often privately enjoy it. Lutherans, for instance, don’t like lust. Catholics and Calvinists are both against it. Mormons allow us several wives but it’s not on account of lust. Baptists are not on lust’s side. If you measure a man by the quality of his enemies, Casanova figures well.

The trouble with temperate people is that they are rarely temperate. All the temperance societies I know promote abstinence. “Nothing too much yet everything a little bit” is not their motto. No. Nothing is the operative word. “Masturbation in moderation” is not their motto. A truly temperate person doesn’t play golf every day. A truly temperate person doesn’t run more than a block a week. A temperate reader won’t read all of Austen or a lot of Balzac. Temperate persons eat sensibly, which means they never diet. But those whose profession is temperance only rail against sex and alcohol, drugs and atheism. Professionally temperate people are cranks. Atheism they ought to like. Atheists admire the word nothing. But they probably don’t admire lust much. Not a single favorable vote from the Methodists. Pietists—nix.

Piety is a nasty little virtue. Reverence for Pa the father, Ra the god, and hurrah the flag. Piety is respect for power and privilege, ancestors and the dead-and-gone deities. There is nothing in the world worth worship.

From William H. Gass’s essay “Lust.” Collected in Life Sentences. 

Ezra Pound wondered which should be sovereign, the verb or the noun (William H. Gass)

It is too easy—the name game—in this case.

Christened “Pound, Ezra Loomis.” If used as a verb, “pound” means to beat. If used as a noun, “pound” signifies a unit of weight, a measure of money, pressure of air, or physical force. From time to time, apropos poetry, Pound wondered which should be sovereign, the verb or the noun, and concluded, if his practice may be entered as evidence, that the verb was most noticed when knocked off the sentence like a phallus from a kouros—“Spiretop alevel the well curb”—and when effects were hammered back into their causes with naillike hyphens—“Seal sport in the spray-whited circles of cliff-wash”—hence into a compaction like a headache … splitting.

As location, a pound sequesters sick animals and strays. “Places of confinement for lawbreakers” is the definition that immediately precedes Pound’s name in The American Heritage Dictionary, after which we encounter the listing for “pound of flesh” and read of “a debt harshly insisted upon.” Certainly a pound is a large bite by any standard, yet it resembles, in being Shylock’s payment, the neschek of the Jews: money for the rent of money; not a gnaw but, in the way it feels coming due, not a nibble either. It is a tax on use, this thinning of the dime, as if money would otherwise be free of entropy; although to put the bite on someone has come to mean to beg for a loan, possibly as a return of favor, where the request is clearly not intended to invite the interest of the loan’s own teeth. So one meaning of “pound” has a relative called “blood money.” It suggests racial forfeiture.

On the other hand, the pound of flesh we subtract from the flank of a steer may increase our girth and relieve many a primordial anxiety. We call it “putting our money to work.” Wear and repair, profit or loss, depends upon your point of view, the angle of the bank and the direction of the bounce. Our poet depended without protest, for much of his life, upon funds supplied by the family of his wife.

The first few paragraphs of William H. Gass’s essay “Ezra Pound.” Collected in Finding a Form.

Most newness is new in all the same old ways (William H. Gass)

‘Make it new,’ Ezra Pound commanded, and ‘innovative’ is a good name for some kinds of fiction; however, most newness is new in all the same old ways: falsely, as products are said to be new by virtue of minuscule and trivial additions; or vapidly, when the touted differences are pointless; or opportunistically, when alterations are made simply in order to profit from imaginary improvements; or differentially, when newness merely marks a moment, place, or person off from others and gives it its own identity, however dopey.

From William H. Gass’s essay “Anywhere but Kansas.” Collected in Tests of Time.

Three Books


The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. 1979 2nd edition hardback from FS&G. Jacket design by Janet Halverson. A marvelous book—Fitzgerald’s editing is wonderful here—there’s a rich index that makes this book a pick me up and read me anytime kind of resource. Particularly great are O’Connor’s letters to ‘A,’ a smart reader whom O’Connor struck up a friendship with in letters.IMG_0522

The Marble Faun; or The Romance of Monte Beni by Nathaniel Hawthorne. 1958 mass market paperback by Pocket Books. No designer credited. I love this cover and design—simple and elegant. The Marble Faun is the only Hawthorne novel (book, really) that I’ve yet to read.IMG_0523

Habitations of the Word: Essays by William H. Gass. 1985 trade paperback by Touchstone/Simon and Schuster. Cover design by Koppel & Scher—and what a great design! (The quotation on the cover is from Gass’s essay “The Soul Inside the Sentence”). I had pulled this book out to find some lines from the first essay, “Emerson and the Essay,” for an American lit class I’m teaching. The essays collected here are brilliant stuff—literary criticism that surpasses “literary criticism.”

Reading/Have Read/Should Write About


From top to bottom:

Mumbo Jumbo, Ishmael Reed

Last summer, I read Alasdair Gray’s novel Lanark and never mustered a review (Florida heat; Fourth of July fireworks; booze; other excuses). I’ve thought about Lanark all the time though. I’m afraid Mumbo Jumbo is gonna fall in the same slot as Lanark—too much to handle in one read. I need to go back and reread Mumbo Jumbo—just fantastic stuff—conspiracy theories, hoodoo, music, art theft—I owe it more than I seem to be able to register here.

Fiction and the Figures of Life, William H. Gass

So I read a handful of essays in Gass’s earliest essay collection interspersed with Infinite Jest, and I actually did write a bit about one of them here, in conjunction with IJ. Perfect sentences. (Gass’s sentences. Not mine). I wisely shelved the thing (Gass’s “review” of a Donald Barthelme collection almost paralyzed me), leaving more pieces to return to later.

The Wallcreeper, Nell Zink

I started Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper this afternoon and only put it down when I had to go pick my kids up from day camp. Then I picked it up again. I just put it down again, at a break, of sorts, on page 77, to write this. Every sentence makes me want to read the next sentence (“I felt almost nostalgic toward socially acceptable horrors with larger meanings related to reproduction,” our narrator quips; a bit later: “My life was like falling off a log comfortably located somewhere light-years above the earth”). It’s about this young married couple living in Bern, Switzerland—also sex, birdwatching, music, etc. I was kinda worried that any novel I picked up after Infinite Jest (see below) might suffer, but nah. The Wallcreeper is fantastic so far.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

Okay, so I mustered a few riffs on rereading Infinite Jest, including a thing about the first 299 pages and a thing for first-time readers—but I finished the novel yesterday, and this is how I felt:

Twitter was the easiest way to try to bottle the feeling of finishing the novel, which is a feeling that I wanted to bottle because didn’t record the feeling of finishing IJ the first time, back in 2001. But I remember finishing it, very, very late at night/early in the morning, and going back through it, rereading that first chapter, trying to figure out What Happened. So what I mean is I felt enthusiasm and energy—it was the opposite of the reread, which was deflationary, I suppose—richer and sadder. And I hate to write this, but it’s impossible not to reread Infinite Jest through the lens of Wallace’s suicide. Just too many suicides in the novel…and then this late passage, from Hal’s narration (elisions and emphasis mine):

…the old specimen’s horrified face as the boy sobs into the chartreuse satin and shrieks ‘Murderer! Murderer!’ over and over, so that almost a third of Accomplice!’s total length is devoted to the racked repetition of this word — way, way longer than is needed for the audience to absorb the twist and all its possible implications and meanings. This was just the sort of issue Mario and I argued about. As I see it, even though the cartridge’s end has both characters emoting out of every pore, Accomplice!’sessential project remains abstract and self-reflexive; we end up feeling and thinking not about the characters but about the cartridge itself. By the time the final repetitive image darkens to a silhouette and the credits roll against it and the old man’s face stops spasming in horror and the boy shuts up, the cartridge’s real tension becomes the question: Did Himself subject us to 500 seconds of the repeated cry ‘Murderer!’ for some reason, i.e. is the puzzlement and then boredom and then impatience and then excruciation and then near-rage aroused in the film’s audience by the static repetitive final 1⁄3 of the film aroused for some theoretical-aesthetic end, or is Himself simply an amazingly shitty editor of his own stuff?

It was only after Himself’s death that critics and theorists started to treat this question as potentially important. A woman at U. Cal–Irvine had earned tenure with an essay arguing that the reason-versus-no-reason debate about what was unentertaining in Himself’s work illuminated the central conundra of millennial après-garde film, most of which, in the teleputer age of home-only entertainment, involved the question why so much aesthetically ambitious film was so boring and why so much shitty reductive commercial entertainment was so much fun. The essay was turgid to the point of being unreadable, besides using reference as a verb and pluralizing conundrum as conundra.

From my horizontal position on the bedroom floor…

There’s hero Hal horizontal, psychic parallel to Don Gately, the hero of stasis, to borrow Hal’s own term…

I’ll try to muster more.

Cess, Gordon Lish

AKA Gordon Lish does whatever the fuck he wants. I read this in one alarmed sitting, and I’m not sure if I read it “correctly,” whatever that means.

The Spectators,Victor Hussenot

Another beautiful book from Nobrow—not a graphic novel, but something closer to a colorful illustrated tone poem, a meditation, a feeling. Excellent review at Loser City, which I made the mistake of reading before I composed my own.